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Essay 4: Pete Wilkinson
WebBall Hitting Challenge 2005
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Hitting: The Critical Teaches

Pete Wilkinson Pete Wilkinson is a former international Olympic program baseball and softball consultant, a former collegiate baseball player at the University of Southern California, and a former high school baseball coach in California and Washington with teams ranked in the top ten in each state. Pete currently heads up his own training academy and rep team from a facility north of Seattle. He is one of the most interesting instructors WebBall has encountered over the years. No one we know gets more pure pleasure from being around the game. His intent is to teach life skills through sports. Pete has also written an entertaining book with some unique perspectives on the game and coaching. Most of all, despite his apparently easy-going approach, Pete has produced winners. Of 173 current senior students, 156 have been recruited to play college baseball. He has had 44 players drafted by Major League Baseball, 32 who have played pro ball, and has 14 players currently in the pros. (Click to close.)

There are two aspects of hitting, the athletic-mechanical aspect and the mental-approach aspect.  Therefore, there are two sets of teaches.  Please keep in mind that this article deals with teaches, not with all the things that actually happen in the swing.  Some of the things that happen don't need to be taught and, in fact, teaching them may tend to disrupt sequencing and timing.

Philosophically, I believe that momentum from weight shift contributes energy to the rotational, torque-driven application of that energy on the baseball.  Swinging a bat is about athleticism and mechanics.  Hitting is about mentality and approach.  While good mechanics make a solid approach more effective, good mechanics evaporate in the absence of a solid approach.

For years, I have watched hitters with good swings getting broken down by pitchers who knew how to create the most important elements in hitting failure ≠ the hitter's own doubt and resulting anxiety.  Hitters' mechanics are broken down by their approach much more often than they are broken down by the pitcher's raw ability to overpower their technique with velocity.

This article will treat the two aspects, discussing key elements which are most important to success and offering the basis of a plan to teach these elements and aspects to mastery.  Mastery is about performance in real games rather than about simply understanding the concepts.

Here is what I would teach...

A hitter has to have a sound physical approach, or mentality won't come into play.  He must see the ball, be quick, and apply strength in each swing.  The mechanics of hitting which make these three things possible are straightforward and simple, at least from a teaching perspective.  The hitter must have balance and stable posture throughout his swing.  Nothing good can consistently come from his effort if his head changes plane or he gets his weight outside his feet.  Most hitters go back to go forward, but they do so with the lower half before they stride.  This "move" produces imbalance and forces the upper body to outrace the lower body back to the ball, also changing posture.  We all call this lunging.  The usual cure is to keep more weight on the back foot as the swing itself begins, which causes the front side to spin out early, getting the bat out of the strike zone early, as well. 

1Therefore, the first critical teach is that the stride 'creates' the loading action, and that the action of the stride (or weight shift in a non-strider like Paul Molitor, for instance) will nearly automatically produce an equal and opposite upper body loading action.  This oppositional action causes the hitter to create torque.  I call this "striding to strength."  The hands must be encouraged to stay back while the lower body goes forward.  Weight shift itself must go to, at least, the midline of the stride to allow proper and timed sequencing of the separation of hips and shoulders prior to and during the forward swing.  The best hitters, like Albert Pujols and Manny Ramirez, for example, shift weight past the midline.  Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Henry Aaron and Roberto Clemente, in different generations, were similar in their commitment to get weight into the inside of the front foot prior to the start of their forward swing.  There is no internal rotation of the back knee during this process.  Early rotation of the knee is a great destroyer of separation and torque.

2The second teach is that the hitter must stabilize his head as the ball gets into the throwing window.  Since pitch recognition is such a huge part of successful hitting, the head has to be steady, if not still.  Therefore, the hitter's front foot should be on the ground.  Heel strike, which is the real timing device (the stride itself is not), can occur later, but must occur before the hands begin to come forward.  This teach is a staple in the golf world because it stabilizes the body and creates separation, and it is no less important in baseball.  Heel-down creates the ability to keep from getting jelly-legged on the curve ball and creates lower body resistance to the torso's drifting through the swing.

3The third teach is an approach teach.  Looking and committing to the ball middle-away in the strike zone helps create and sustain separation for torque because it promotes leaving the shoulder in.  Carl Yastrzemski used to say that the pitcher's job was to get him to move his front shoulder one inch open just as he started his swing.  Looking middle-away accomplishes two things:  first, it keeps the front shoulder closed a little longer, and second, it helps the hitter hit the pitch where it most likely to be (about 70% of the time in real life at every level, the pitch will be middle-away).

4 The fourth teach is an answer to the old and current teach that the hands/knob go to the ball.  In a real swing properly executed, the hands go down and inside into a slot which runs roughly toward the left hip (front) pocket in a pair of Dockers.  The elevation of the ball will cause the down angle to change slightly, but this hand action - which is caused by pulling on the knob with the bottom hand - creates the 'modern' slightly uppercut swing by creating extension of the lead arm out front instead of earlier in the swing, while it gets the handle away from the strike zone.  This move gets the barrel to stay in and through the strike zone for a longer period of time than does the move of weight-back and hands thrust out toward the ball.  This move does not change on an outside pitch, but the ball is allowed to travel farther through the strike zone toward the depth of the back hip.

5The last physical teach is just a reminder to swing with authority and finish the swing through the strike zone into a full finish.  I don't care too much about a high finish or a lower one, since these are aspects that depend on a hitter's natural tendency/ability to hit the ball out of the park or intentionally keep it in the park with a low, fast line drive ala Ichiro.

The next teaches are all about approach.

"Get a good pitch to hit" Ted Williams used to say.  A marginal swing will hit a hitter's pitch better, more often than a good swing will hit a pitcher's pitch.  I believe this is THE most important teach in hitting.  Just as a cornerback can't defend a good receiver all over the football field, a hitter can't successfully defend the entire strike zone.  He should pick half of the plate (or sometimes less) and attack the ball in that area on this pitch.  Even with two strikes, the hitter should just foul off the side of the plate (inner half) in which he is not doing anything positive on purpose.

Have a plan.  This is as important as getting a good pitch because it determines what a "good pitch" is in the current situation.  If the hitter is trying to move a runner, a good pitch is different than if he has two outs - no one on base - and a 2-0 count, and he's trying to knock a fence down.  He needs to have a purpose for each at-bat, or he will not be consistently productive.

Guess.  Early in the count, pick a pitch (actually location) you want to hit and commit to it!  He should want to hit until the ball isn't where he wants it.  The more committed the hitter is to a certain location, the easier it is for him to let the pitch that is somewhere else go by.  He wants to guess fastball and location because adjustments are easier.  Guessing off-speed pitch, then adjusting to fastball, isn't practical at the higher levels.  Early in the count and/or ahead in the count, the hitter must want to crush the fastball he likes.
At two strikes (45% of all at-bats), the successful hitter changes the timing, not the swing or grip.  No one practices choking up on the bat, so why use it at the most crucial time?  Learning and utilizing one swing is hard enough without having to produce two swings consistently.  The only difference is that the hitter will purposely hit the fastball late, not up the middle but to right field, so he can control some of the at-bat by taking away the off-speed pitch (at least to some degree) in two-strike situations.  I teach patience with a slightly expanded strike zone because it is critical at two strikes to see the ball as long as possible.  The good two-strike hitter doesn't cut down on his swing - he starts it forward later.

The last teach is to have the hitter be steadfast (mentally tough, if you will) in his approach.  If doubt and anxiety are his enemies, then total commitment to his plan and approach are his true friends.  In my opinion, this results in more success than any other single part of the above-described formula.  This is the difference between the truly great hitter and the pretty good hitter.

Measuring success is important, too. 

A hitter should want to have a quality at-bat, which I define as "he got a good pitch to hit and had a good swing at it," whether he did something with it or not.  If he did not get a good pitch to hit, he must "take the at-bat to six pitches," which puts pressure on the pitcher.  If one or the other of these happens 75% of the time, the hitter is likely to "hit the ball hard twice a game" (out of four at-bats) on average, which I define as the true measure of the successful hitter.

Tony Gwynn has said that a hitter's approach must be simple to be consistently effective.  I believe that the approach described above works well as a simple basic system which the hitter can adapt to his own personality, physicality and mentality.  This keeps at-bats simple and straightforward, therefore giving the hitter a marginally better chance to be successful = and hitting success is always a matter of the margin, because the pitcher will win the battle most of the time.


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